Silence as Tacit Knowledge

Margaret Daisley
The University of Massachusetts, Amherst

"Success" was something that needed continual re-definition in Terry's pedagogy, even within the cycles of the particular semester, and at this early stage the instructor noted the silence and used it as a signal that it was time to start planning the next project. As if trying to put a finger on the pulse of the course, Terry made the remark, "It's kind of just, maybe, one- two- something like a heartbeat. Kind of once in a while. And I want it to pick up again, so how do we get it to pick up again? And, you know, we just continually think of maybe this, maybe that." Terry's "pulse-taking" involved reading online silences and measuring them against past experiences and present circumstances. As such, her own awareness of these silences and attempts to read them constitutes the type of tacit knowledge that Kalamaras refers to, using the categories of "conceptual" and "nonconceptual" knowledge to delineate the difference between being able to name phenomena in that silence, or to simply understand the essence of them intuitively--a kind of gut instinct.

Nonceptual knowledge is a knowledge "inscribed upon the body," according to Zuboff (1988) who refers to the phenomenon as "sentiate knowledge" (40). In her own studies of workers making the transition to using computer technologies, she notes the "dis-location" that workers undergo in the transition because the site of their knowledge--or more accurately, the site of enacting that knowledge--has been displaced by computer technology. In composition studies, also, theorists reference nonconceptual knowledge, some using the term "felt sense" (Perl 1980, 1994; Elbow 1994). When we write, for instance, as Elbow argues, "we stop and periodically check it to see if it says what we think it says.... The source of the answer is the feeling and the body--consulted in silence" (13). Additionally, researchers such as the writers of Women's Ways of Knowing and Deborah Tannen, as Patricia Laurence (1994) notes, have given us an epistemological framework that "consists as much in feeling, knowing, and a kind of listening that allows things to come into presence as it does in speaking" (157).

There is a stark contrast, however, between the ways that the students and the instructor listened and responded to online silences. While both instances constitute dialogic situations, in the instructor's case questions posed by cycles of online silence were answered via tacit knowledge. For the instructor, silence precipitated an occasion to respond by saying, "Now, it's time for another assignment." For many students, on the other hand, listening to online silences led to communication anxiety. Student 4's store of tacit knowledge about computers and CMC, for instance, was a reservoir of negative memories. Many students in Terry's class had little experience -- no tacit knowledge, no reference points -- for making sense of the online situation.

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